The Age of Innocence: “On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”
It’s 1870s New York, the Gilded Age of America, where substantial economic growth has bred a culture of wealth, class and entitlement. There are certain ways you behave and certain ways you don’t. The approval of the masses govern your actions and if you fall out of step, the resulting repercussions could be fatal to your social standing. However as opulent as the “gild” may appear, gilding is often used to mask flaws, and Wharton, in this Pulitzer Prize novel, examines the cracks and blemishes of New York society underneath the glamour.
Newland Archer is a young man who is firmly entrenched in the Gilded Age, the dictums of New York society inscribed in his soul with the expectations of the generation preceding his firmly entrenched in his behaviour. Then enters Madame Olenska. Ellen Olenska is the cousin of his betrothed, May Welland. While May is simple and uncomplicated, sort of a clear mirror of the society in which they move, Ellen is foreign and complex and holds an attraction for Newland that draws him outside of his societal shell, allowing him a new perspective on life. Suddenly the world he saw as sensible and practical now receives a critical appraisal from him as it appears small-minded, predictable and stifling. As his attraction for Ellen grows, so does his dissatisfaction. There is a possible turning point, but the break never materializes as Newland and May wed, beginning their married life. Yet Ellen appears in their lives yet again and the uncomfortable unknown is always whispering around us: will Archer satisfy his longing and run away with Ellen or will old society New York curb his emotions and steer him on a more dutiful course?
Old New York society rules resonate throughout the book, but the reader can also feel a rumbling under the surface, and especially with the new generation one senses new perceptions and new ideas preparing to break through. Yet while the old rules can at times appear uncompromising and inflexible, the title of the book perhaps gives a more varied perspective. May Welland, a product of her times, in her simplicity and predictability exemplifies a lack of complication and an ease of life that is born of her beliefs in the era in which she lives, but throughout the book in the greater societal structure these behaviours seem to be slowly disappearing. In her autobiography, Wharton claimed writing the book allowed her “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”
And with her characteristic perception, Wharton demonstrated keen insight with regard to both New York society and human nature. Newland represented a man wanting to follow his desires yet trapped in a society where he was expected to comply with its rules and behaviour. While he did have a choice, the choice was limited and a decision to follow his feelings would have come with an enormous cost. However, with Newland’s behaviour, Wharton also established the capriciousness of human nature, the inconstancy of sentiment and the uncertainty of our own wants. Even our strongest feelings can be altered and changed. If one acts on feeling alone, one is apt to be deceived and it’s only a strict moral code that can work to ensure stability, integrity and thus, happiness.
This novel was so complex with class structure, emotional tension, possible tragedy and all its other various social implications that writing a comprehensive and compact review is fraught with pitfalls. I’m still thinking about this book, wondering at Newlands behaviour and how Wharton meant the reader to perceive him, pondering the depth of May’s character or lack of it, musing over the behaviour and feelings of Madam Olenska, and the rather surprising ending of the whole. The House of Mirth is still my favourite Wharton novel, but The Age of Innocence with its epic scope certainly is a close second. Wharton is truly an incomparable writer!